Cowboy 101: Finishing Grassfed Steers
The questions I hear most frequently from grassfed stocker buyers are “How long does it take to finish a steer” and “How do you finish yours?” The true answer to the first question, with a nod to Jim Gerrish, is “it depends.”
It depends on this equation: genetics(steer) x environment = finishing time.
On the steer side, here are a few factors that really matter: birth weight, frame size, weaning weight, dam’s milking ability, dam’s fertility, fleshing ability, grazing vigor, heat tolerance, and parasite resistance, to name a few. Growth rate and fleshing ability strike me as the most important ones.
The environment side of the equation must include forage availability, forage quality, grazing scheme or plan, managerial rigor, parasite load (worms, flies, lice), weather (drought, heat, cold), disease, and unforeseen circumstances. All of these factors and others I’ve failed to mention are crucial, but it boils down to grass and management.
Come to think of it, grassfarming or ranching is a rural ballet that constantly attempts to balance growth rate and fleshing ability with grass and management, on tip-toe.
Birth weight may seem out of place on the factor list, but a tiny newborn is probably not going to grow up and finish within your window. If you keep it all the way to harvest and sell the beef, you’ve probably charged the customer a good premium but subsidized his purchase by investing too much grass, management and energy in the calf. The big-boned heavy BW calves won’t perform much better; with larger frames and greater bone mass it will take them much longer to begin fat deposition.
Weaning weight can be a good indicator of whether the calf is on schedule to finish in your window. For instance, if your finishing window is 20 months/1100 lbs, and you have calves born April 1, a target WW at 240 days would be 550 lbs. This would give the steer 365 days to gain the additional 550 lbs, which would require a gain of 1.5 lbs./day. That sounds fairly easy to accomplish, but when you plug in the environmental factors you’ll need to have a significant number of days in which the gain is better than 3lbs./day, which isn’t quite so easy. Obviously, the dam’s milking ability will be the major contributor to the WW numbers and whether that steer can finish on time.
Assuming moderate framed-cattle in a mild environment with decent quality forage, calves that weigh in the 450-500 range at 240 days are going to be more of a challenge to finish and will almost certainly require substantial supplemental feeding their first winter to get them on track. Many will still take 24 months, and when you add that second winter you subtract most of the premium you receive for converting the steer to a package of grassfed beef.
Calves that weigh less than 450 lbs. at weaning will struggle to be profitable as grassfed beeves. The grass those calves will use if you hold onto them would be better utilized by a thriftier, faster growing animal.
Fleshing ability is probably the most valuable trait to a grass-finisher.
Some calves are born thick, get fat early, grow fast, get fatter, and finish earlier. These are the kind that will make your job easier and your beef better. These are the kind whose mothers stay fat under all conditions and calve every year, on time, and whose sires are muscled-up and stubby-built, like a weight lifter. These are the kind that finish sooner, yield higher due to superior muscle-to-bone ratio, generate more profit, and will overcome environmental challenges and management ineptness. We have never had a shortage of management ineptness around here, I can assure you.
The easy-fleshing steer may finish at a lighter weight, which might present a problem on a profit-per-head basis due to fixed costs in transporting and processing. However, you can run more of this kind, and more of the kind of cows and bulls that produce them, on the same amount of country.
Regarding forage, what is necessary for finishing in my neighborhood is a bountiful supply of grass with a good percentage of legumes mixed in. We have fescue here in Southwest VA, and we try to dilute it in the summer with red and white clovers. Inasmuch as most of our land does not lend itself to farming and our people are not too inclined to ride in circles on tractors, about all we do to enhance pasture quality is frost-seed clovers every now and then. And try to graze in such a manner as to improve the soil and forage.
Grazing management is critical, and grass-finishing is probably a 400-level subject rather than Cowboy 101.
Finishing steers are allowed, and encouraged, to graze selectively within a loose but definite plan. Larger paddocks and frequent moves stimulate gains. Competitive grazing is not part of the plan; I want every bite that steer can take to be the best possible mouthful he can get, and I want him to take as many bites per day as he possibly can. Basically they get the opportunity to do continuous grazing but we keep moving them to fresh paddocks every 1-3 days.
The steers will respond well to pampering. Keep the flies off of them, keep the worms out of them, furnish plenty of shade, keep quiet around them, and generally make their lives as perfect as possible. Avoid “cattle working days” as much as possible, don’t run them through the chute, try not to break their grazing routine at all. With this grazing system and white clover/fescue pasture, finishing steers can gain 3-4 lbs/day, even in the heat of summer.
The finishing stage is the one time we concentrate on maximum gain per head rather than per acre.
So, to answer the two questions above, our finishing goal on moderate-framed spring calves is 1100 lbs. at 20 months with .5” of backfat, and we can usually determine at weaning if the calf has a chance to make it. We try to give them every opportunity to gain the maximum amount of weight per head per day on forage. Some finish earlier, some later, and some get ground up for hamburger.
Fall calves may be a bit easier to finish because of the time of year they hit the finishing stage, but you have to winter them twice, once on the cow and once as a yearling, which probably requires more grass/hay/supplement/expense.
It isn’t as easy as I’d like it to be, and cattle don’t always do as I’d like them to do. Some calves don’t have enough growth, some are too framey, some don’t perform as well as they should, others totally out-perform, astoundingly. But I’m excited we have opportunity to improve by using heavier-muscled bulls, cows with better udders and bred-in fleshing ability, and by refining our grazing management.